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High Powered: Comparing the Warriors to the Mid-2000s Pistons

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When we make the inevitable historical comparisons to these 2016-17 Golden State Warriors, most will naturally do so on the offensive side of the ball. This is understandable for several reasons, from the relative ease in finding offensive statistical comparison points to the simple visibility of the Dubs’ offensive dominance to even the casual fan. You don’t need advanced basketball knowledge to visually pick up how stunning this team is when they have the ball.

What about when they don’t have it, though? Interim coach Mike Brown recently offered a unique comparison point.

“I’ll never forget, back when I was the head coach of the Cavaliers, we were playing the old Pistons teams with Larry Brown coaching the team – they had a veteran team, you talk about Rasheed Wallace, Ben Wallace, Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, and those guys. The thing that I felt that bothered us a lot when we played them [was] they talked their defense through quite a bit. One time down the floor, in a pick-and-roll situation, they’d switch it. Then the next time down the floor, they may blitz it. Next time down the floor, they may push it to the baseline. The following time, they may show. To be able to mix up your defense throughout the course of the game, whether it’s on ball screens or pindowns, is something that can be to the defense’s advantage – but it’s hard to do, in my opinion, unless you have a veteran team that has a good feel. When you talk about Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green, to start with – David West inside. We have some intelligent veterans that are able to talk our defense through. So we’ll mix up our coverages. You watch us – we’ll switch sometimes, we won’t switch at other times.”

There’s a lot to digest there. If comparing your team directly to one of the consensus best defenses ever sounds a tad audacious, that’s because it is – but it’s also completely reasonable in this case.

There are some statistical similarities between those dominant mid-2000s Pistons and these Warriors, even beyond their mutual elite finishes year after year. Both teams forced a ton of turnovers and blocked a ton of shots, and both consistently rated near the bottom of the league in fouls committed, a dangerous combination.

But the real similarities went deeper, and Brown hits on them. In case you worry this is a bit of shameless self-promotion, know that opponents – including some who were around for those same Pistons teams – feel the same way.

“He’s comparing them to a great defense, and I would agree,” said Jazz coach Quin Snyder, recently the victim of a Warriors blitzkrieg. “One of the guys on my staff was an assistant then, Igor Kokoshkov, so we’ve talked about those teams. We’ve talked about the balance of those teams. He’s talked about the communication, so it’s something I’m actually familiar with in a tangible way… You talk about a team with a high IQ, and you think about offense. [But] they have a defensive IQ that’s, you know, Mensa.”

Snyder’s Jazz got a healthy dose of the modern version of this in round two. The Warriors’ switching scheme on the ball has been relatively evident to the discerning hoops fan for a few years now, but they do it just as well away from the ball:

That play is a Jazz staple, a simple little action that nonetheless confounds many unprepared defenses. They begin in a HORNS alignment (a ball-handler at the top of the key, with two players in screening positions at both elbows), and Gordon Hayward comes up as if to set a screen for ball-handler Shelvin Mack:

Before he gets there, though, Hayward slips the screen and immediately takes a new flare screen from Rudy Gobert – the idea is to get Hayward’s man, Klay Thompson in this case, to lean too far the wrong way anticipating the ball screen.

Normally, this is tough for the defense. If the big man guarding Gobert doesn’t recognize what’s happening, Hayward gets a wide open three. Even if the big does recognize it and jumps out to Hayward, the defense often gives up an open rolling lane to Gobert amid the confusion. Best case scenario, the defense usually ends up with a slower big man switched onto Hayward, who can then go to work.

Not for the Warriors, though. They simply switch Draymond Green, a human Swiss Army knife, onto Hayward and Thompson onto Gobert, and the play is dead. With half the shot clock already gone, the Warriors aren’t worried about Thompson’s ability to handle the bigger Gobert for a few seconds, especially with a smart and long helping scheme around him. Thompson even has the savvy to sag way off Gobert and grab the steal during Hayward’s resulting drive.

Some of what Brown is talking about is simply personnel, and Green is the foundation. He’s long drawn comparisons to both of the anchors for those Pistons teams.

These comparisons aren’t new, of course. The similarities to Ben Wallace are pretty obvious, from an undersized stature to an emotional flare for the dramatic. Green has outwardly discussed (and written about) the inspiration he’s drawn from the Pistons’ former afro-toting defensive star, and even if they differ in their precise strengths and roles, it’s easy to see. The comparisons to Rasheed are perhaps less common, but just as apt.

“Ben Wallace is a little different anchoring those defenses, but the communication on the perimeter, the ability to switch,” Snyder said. “I think Rasheed Wallace was probably one of the great defensive communicators that’s ever played the game. But that was something, at least according to Igor too, that we’ve discussed – I look at that and I see Draymond Green a little bit. His ability to communicate and kind of orchestrate.”

Like with many things, we think of “freedom” for elite players almost exclusively on the offensive end – the better a guy is, the more leeway he has to take matters into his own hands and deviate from the plan to help the team. The Warriors “plan” less than virtually anyone, playing through feel far more often, but that same theme is still evident for Draymond on the defensive end.

“He basically has carte blanche, for the most part,” Brown said. “Just like Steph – if he wants to cross halfcourt and pull it from 55 feet, he can do the same. You have guys that are effective in certain areas of the game – you kind of give them a little bit more freedom or rope to do what they can do to help us win the ballgame.”

Green sets the baseline, but the whole thing still wouldn’t have the same overall effect without several other high-IQ guys on the court at all times. With the freedom to make changes on the fly and the hyper-intelligent Green constantly barking out little hints, the Warriors will cycle through each of several coverages Brown mentioned – all within a given game, quarter or even a single sequence.

Here’s David West showing Mack a quick blitz when it looks like Mack might have a step on his man, Ian Clark. Notice how seamlessly Green stays within reach of Gobert, temporarily free as the roll man, before leaping back out to corral his own man, Joe Johnson. Then West makes a great individual play to rip the ball from Gobert for a steal.

Sometimes, they’ll show the blitz, but audible out of it within instants. West is all set to make the same play here, but the moment he notices Green getting over the ball screen more easily than expected, West scurries back to his man and gives Draymond all the time he needs to jack the rock from a befuddled Johnson.

They don’t always need to be so aggressive, though, and opposing personnel plays a big role. When Utah’s Joe Ingles was the ball-handler in pick-and-roll sets, for instance, the Warriors generally played a softer coverage: a brief show by the big man, but then a drop back.

The Dubs know Ingles isn’t much of a threat to pull up from midrange, and prefers to either pass or find the layup as long as they keep him from launching a three. JaVale McGee shows him just enough of a body to stop the triple, but then relaxes, allowing Iguodala to stay home on Hayward in the corner and grab the steal when Ingles anticipates more middle help from Iggy:

Hell, they’ll mix it up within the same play depending on how well the screen was set. Look at how Durant and West are all set to play a basic drop-back scheme here on a Johnson-Gobert pick-and-roll, but when Gobert’s second try at the screen is much more effective, West aborts the plan and simply switches onto him, generating yet another turnover.

The Warriors are one of just a handful of teams since those Pistons capable of playing this way based on personnel, but make no mistake about one thing: It takes so much more than just a bunch of long, versatile guys to do this. The collective IQ for this team defense is among the highest in recent memory, and maybe in the game’s history.

Making it even more remarkable is the lack of a traditional rim protector on the floor at virtually all times. McGee has the profile, but he’s a wild jumper who can be moved out of position with basic craft, and he commits way too many goaltends and no-chance leaps that put him out of position. Zaza Pachulia is one of the worst rim protectors in the league for his size.

That really only leaves Green (an elite and thoroughly underrated rim protector, but not in the traditional sense), West (a converted power forward) and Durant, who took a big defensive leap this season that largely went unnoticed amid several other bigger storylines. Durant blocked a higher percentage of opponent shots this year than ever before, and allowed a respectable opponent percentage at the rim, per SportVU figures.

“Just me personally, I’ve never been a huge believer in trying to go get a shot-blocker,” Brown said. “If you have one, great. But I feel like if you have guys who are intelligent, guys who are willing to cover for one another, guys who understand the rule of verticality, then in my opinion, that’s just as good as going and getting a guy that can block shots. And I think all of our guys have a good feel for using the rule of verticality, and then covering for one another.”

Brown’s personal beliefs aside, this is the largest difference between this group and those Pistons defenses.

Those teams had Ben Wallace in a Draymond-ish role, providing a mixture of help-side and on-ball rim protection. But they also had Rasheed as the final line of defense in an era where the power of the three-pointer wasn’t yet fully realized, and the list of bigs who could ever reliably move Rasheed away from his post in the paint was basically Dirk Nowitzki and no one else.

That the Warriors are drawing these comparisons, and that they aren’t ludicrous, is an even greater feat within this context. There’s no Sheed to clean up mistakes; even if there was, there are so many more matchups that could cause problems for these types in today’s game. The biggest area where the two elite defenses diverge is probably the single most impressive part of this Warriors group.

As the playoffs wear on, there’s a real chance these comparisons become the only decent ones left. There just aren’t any contemporary analogies that make sense, or capture the full force of what this team does on both ends. Any team that manages an unlikely four victories in seven over this group will not only have beaten a historically great attack, but also one of the smartest and most unique defenses ever assembled.

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About Ben Dowsett

Ben Dowsett

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.